THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN
As familiar as I am with the oeuvre of Martin McDonagh, I couldn't necessarily teach a course on the playwright/filmmaker's darkly comedic stage and screen works. But if I could, I would likely start with The Banshees of Inisherin, an absolutely delightful (if slightly grim) reunion for In Bruges co-stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, and one that seems to boil its creator's signature style down to its absolute essence – yet in unexpectedly tender fashion. For those unacquainted with McDonagh's works, it really is the perfect introduction: Start with Gleeson threatening to hack off some digits, then progress to A Behanding in Spokane, and wrap up with a little girl who's literally crucified in The Pillowman. Baby steps, ya know.
I wouldn't call this remedial McDonagh. But in comparison to his other, significantly bleaker offerings, Banshees is certainly genteel McDonagh, given that one of its chief subjects is niceness – albeit niceness that leads to at least two unintentional deaths. With the movie set in 1923 Ireland on the fictitious island of the title, and with gunfire and explosions from the dwindling Irish Civil War occasionally heard on the mainland, we're introduced to the sweetest lad on the isle: Pádraic Súilleabháin (Farrell), an even-tempered dairyman utterly content in his daily routine. Sharing the home of their upbringing with his adored sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon), Pádraic begins every morning by tending to his animals, including his pet donkey Jenny that, to Siobhan's irritation, he allows into the house. Then, every day at 2 p.m., Pádraic stops by the cottage of local fiddler and composer Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), and the friends make their way into town for a pint or several. If Pádraic had his way, nothing about life – including his co-habitation with the similarly single Siobhan – would ever change. But boy does it change.
When Pádraic, prompt as usual, shows up at Colm's for their daily walk-and-drink and Colm, clearly visible while smoking in his sitting room, refuses to come to the door, the dairyman thinks it's odd. When he's later rebuffed by Colm at the pub with a terse “Sit somewhere else,” Pádraic is confused and hurt. And when, after finally allowing his former best mate to sit across from him, Colm explains his behavioral shift with a succinct “I just don't like you no more,” Pádraic is devastated, seeking the counsel of anyone who'll listen and ultimately demanding that his buddy again engage with him. That's when Colm delivers his tense threat: For every time that Pádraic bothers him from now on, Colm will cut off one of his own fingers with a set of sheep shears and give it to the younger man as a gift. I've heard of ghosting, but this is ridiculous – for the sake of some peace and quiet, Colm is willing to make his hands spectral.
While he's a frequent practitioner of sprawling, sometimes convoluted narratives, McDonagh is also a master of simplicity (he won a 2004 Oscar for his live-action short Six Shooter, which Gleeson starred in), and Banshees' premise is beguilingly, juicily simple. Yet in that straightforwardness lie myriad theses and questions that the writer/director is clearly having a ball tinkering with here: the quandary of being good versus being real, or even merely interesting; the struggle in offering kindness while not staying true to yourself; the limits of loyalty. What keeps McDonagh's latest, however, from feeling like a sermon, or a number of sermons – a fate that sadly befell his Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – is the jolly puckishness of its presentation and evident warmth of its creator's approach.
McDonagh may hold nothing but spite for the brutal, repellant island cop (Gary Lydon) who routinely abuses his child and gives Pádraic a brutal wallop, and he may be less fascinated than repulsed by Inisherin's resident Cassandra (Sheila Flitton), a doom-spouting crone who suggests all three of Macbeth's Weird Sisters rolled into one. He appears, though, to have nothing but love and empathy for the shattered Pádraic, the despairing Colm, the yearning Siobhan, and even the resident village idiot Dominic, who's emotionally sharper than he appears. (Despite the character's plethora of physical tics and verbal idiosyncrasies, Barry Keoghan manages, somewhat miraculously, to make Dominic a heartbreakingly endearing figure – and it's a considerable kick watching the actor share banter and pints with Farrell after causing the guy so much grief in Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer.) Better still, McDonagh and his estimable central quartet are able to make all of these sad, broken people funny.
Prior to Banshees, Farrell's finest, most expansive screen performance was in McDonagh's 2008 In Bruges, and the actor handily tops it with his Pádraic, finding infinite varieties of comedic shading and emotional transparency in the character's essential decency and dullness. As he did 14 years ago, Gleeson, a master of the tossed-off punchline, partners his co-star with divine gravitas and depth of feeling. And if the movie in its entirety weren't so pleasurable, Condon would come dangerously close to stealing the show, her snap and forcefulness as Siobhan a welcome, beautifully rendered counter to Pádraic's easily bruised nature and Farrell's puppy-dog appeal. As in McDonagh's three previous feature-film outings (2012's terrifically entertaining Seven Psychopaths is the third), his dialogue can sound uncomfortably stagey, and there are passages here – especially the nearly identical blatherings of the pub's owner and one of its longtime patrons – that practically have a proscenium arch dangling above them. Yet beyond being moving, Farrell, Gleeson, Condon, and Keoghan are all inventively, realistically hilarious, and McDonagh has crafted alongside them a number of top-tier throwaway routines: Colm's church confession that ends with the priest (David Pearse) unleashing a slew of F-bombs; Pádraic hiding behind a wall at the impending arrival of that portentous old crone; Colm's fiddle student revealing, in the movie's biggest surprise laugh, how his mother died.
Is The Banshees of Inisherin a great movie? Despite the praise I've lavished, I don't think so. McDonagh has mined much of this particular terrain before to stronger, more imaginative effect (especially in his biting 1997 play The Lonesome West), and the inherent sentimentality, while charming, is also rather limiting. Between the verdant, lushly photographed hills, Farrell's little-boy-lost adorableness, and the frequent cuts to animals – including a cornball, mood-killing gag that finds Colm's dog sneaking his owner's shears out of the house – the movie seems a bit designed as a Martin McDonagh for those who don't like Martin McDonagh. Yet that's also its chief selling point: Banshees is likable, supremely so, and certainly more polished and entertaining than most buddy comedies ever get. The vicious, nasty, hysterical McDonagh of old will no doubt be back. In the meantime, I'm happy with the generous, thoughtful, largely forgiving one we have.
Coming-of-age dramas can be sickly things, especially when their protagonists are forced to learn important life lessons about bigotry and tolerance and standing up for what you believe in and the difficult road toward Becoming an Artist – worthy subjects all, but ones oftentimes employed in the service of sanctimony. Autobiographical dramas of this sort can be even worse. But James Gray, the marvelously eclectic talent behind Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant, and other beautifully realized low-key wonders, is a smart cookie who knows how to distinguish the sentimental from the saccharine. And so it makes sense that Armageddon Time, a work indebted to Gray's childhood experiences growing up in the early 1980s, is the rare movie of its type that feels honest rather than glorified, and uncomfortable rather than tidy. Batman, we were told, wasn't the hero Gotham City wanted, but the one it needed. This is the coming-of-age saga that those of us who've grown bored of the genre kind of need. Happily, it's also one that a lot of viewers may want, myself very much included.
Gray's stand-in is this 1980-set narrative is native New Yorker Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a middle-class Jewish-American from Queens whose first day of public-school sixth grade finds him getting in trouble – during the taking of attendance! – for circulating a speedily drawn caricature of their teacher that his classmates find hysterical. (Paul's teacher, played by a gratifyingly humorless Andrew Polk, is Mr. Turkeltaub, so how could Paul resist?) Within seconds, Paul has made an accidental friend of fellow classroom instigator Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an African-American who has been held back a year, and whom Mr. Turkeltaub treats abhorrently, and seemingly irrationally. The boys become the tightest of pals who love bucking authority together, and before long, they're ditching field trips to the Guggenheim in favor of adventures at the arcade and sharing a joint in a school-restroom stall. This latter incident, however, proves to be the final straw for both the school and Paul's parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong), who promptly ship their son to private school, with the parentless Johnny left to fend for himself. It's at his new school that Paul, who witnessed the unfair treatment Johnny had to endure, learns that racism isn't restrictive. Now it's Paul, amidst a field of rich, entitled Protestants, who finds himself the subject of abuse.
This might all make Armageddon Time sound terribly after-school-special-y, and every once in a while – as when just a few too many beats are spent on the still faces of Paul and Johnny as they gradually recognize a particular injustice – writer/director Gray's material plays that way. It also, on occasion, plays as awkwardly overt satire, especially in scenes of domestic squabble and family dinners at the Graff residence, with loud-talking relatives kvetching over plates of bagels and Gefilte fish, and Strong willfully slipping into exaggerated Jackie Mason cadences. Meanwhile, the experiences of Johnny are unfortunately treated more as plot points in a white kid's story than organic experiences of their own – and on some level, you sense that Gray knows it, but doesn't quite know what to do about it. Late in the film, after Paul has been granted a number of visualized memories and imagined fantasy sequences, the film abruptly gives us a flashback to Johnny with his bedridden grandmother, and the effect is jarring. It's lovely to see Gray finally giving Johnny some interior life, particularly in light of Webb's sensitive performance, but why did he wait until 90 minutes into his 110-minute movie to do it?
Still, when Gray's film isn't momentarily disappointing you, it's generally fantastic. Young Banks Repeta boasts an arresting naturalism and preternatural sense of timing, and he's outstanding when he's required to be: Paul hiding in the shower when fearing a vicious beating from his father (a beating he isn't able to avoid); Paul realizing the depths of the fall Johnny is willing to take for him. Hathaway, comfortably ensconced in middle-aged-character-actress form, is at all times wonderful, and Strong is terrific, too, whenever he allows himself to not get buried beneath his dialect. The period detail is unerringly fine; the locations and situations feel lived-in and void of melancholic glow; one remarkable school-assembly scene – a cleverly appropriate one given the family's history with the institution – finds John Diehl portraying Fred Trump with terrifying familiarity, a sight followed by his daughter Maryanne (a steely Jessica Chastain) essentially instructing students on how not to be a loser.
And Armageddon Time is maybe never better than in its heartfelt, intellectually and emotionally stimulating moments involving Anthony Hopkins as Paul's adored grandpa, who casually builds the child's esteem with gifts, nonchalant expressions of deep love, and tales from decades of the Graff family's history as emigrant Jews. The 84-year-old Welsh actor, in Gray's film, magically blends old-world soul with new-world technique, and the results are heart-wrenching and exhilarating. Who else but Hopkins, over the course of an astounding 55-year screen-acting career in which he won an Emmy for 1981's TV-movie The Bunker, could believably portray both a kindly Jewish grandfather and Adolf Hitler?
DECISION TO LEAVE
After an incredibly unusual weekend of enjoying myself three-for-three at the debuting releases I attended, I'm saving the best for last with writer/director Park Chan-wook's Decision to Leave. I'm also, to your immense relief, I'm sure, going to make this the shortest review of the three, because I truly hope that patrons view this astonishingly entertaining mystery-drama-comedy-thriller-romance (currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene at the Chauncey) the way I did: with as little advance information as possible.
So here's what I'll tell you regarding the plot of Park's and co-screenwriter Jewong Seo-kyeong's thunderously gripping Korean genre-bender: a rich, experienced mountain climber tumbles off a precipice and dies. The accident is deemed a possible homicide. The chief suspect is the climber's much-younger Chinese wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei). The case's chief investigator Detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), an insomniac who falls immediately, passionately, and chastely in love with Seo-rae, wants to prove the death an accident. After multiple twists and turns – all of them inventively, spectacularly fashioned by the creative force behind the modern revenge classic Oldboy – the narrative reaches its unforeseen yet logical, hugely satisfying resolution. Being aware of Decision to Leave's running length ahead of time, it felt like the swiftest 138 minutes I'd ever spent at a movie. And then the brilliantly serpentine narrative started anew, because it turned out that we still had about 45 minutes to go ... and all of those minutes proved to be breathtaking.
As much as I've unsuccessfully tried to weed them out, I still have friends who blanch at the notion of sitting through subtitles for more than two hours. Like Bong Joon-ho's Oscar champ Parasite, Park's latest is a film that might get those friends to reassess their biases, because good lord is this thing fun. Not counting Decision to Leave lasting two-and-a-quarter hours, all I knew in advance about Park's modern-day noir – beyond, that is, knowing of its rave reviews and Best Director victory at this spring's Cannes Film Festival – was that the movie was vaguely reminiscent of Hitchock's Vertigo, which, if you can pull it off, is certainly a classic worth emulating. It was everything else I was completely, joyously unprepared for.
I didn't anticipate how sensationally funny Park's movie would be, its laugh-out-loud highlights including a feverish run up many flights of stairs that none of the chase's three participants are quite fit for; a knife fight involving a chain-metal glove; a turtle refusing to remove our hero's finger from its mouth; and the detective's hot-tempered partner (Go Kyung-pyo) randomly soothing his ally's neck with an electric massager. I didn't anticipate how subtly erotic it would be, with Hae-jun and Seo-rae generating enormous heat simply by cooking a meal together; the woman fumbling inside the man's coat pocket for lip balm; and the pair delaying their first kiss by just over two hours. (Hae-jun's sex with his long-distance wife, played by Lee Jung-hyun, is far less hot – a surprising, potentially telling hint from the writer/director of 2016's The Handmaiden.) I certainly didn't anticipate how playful this theoretically moody offering would be, considering that, at certain points, Park effectively places his audience inside an iPhone; invisibly changes the camera's focus on interrogation-room denizens and their mirrored equivalents; and has his lead detective routinely imagine himself in the apartment of the suspect he's surveilling. (Sleep-deprived sweetheart that he is, Hae-jun is so kind as to hold an ashtray under the sleeping woman's quickly evaporating cigarette.)
And I absolutely wasn't expecting the depth of emotion that would be generated, with Park's control over his complex, increasingly twisty narrative as assured as Hitchock's in Vertigo – don't worry if you find yourself momentarily confused by the goings-on, because Park has exit strategies in store – and leads Park Hae-il and Tang Wei as robustly compelling, moving, amusing, alluring, and tragic as James Stewart and Kim Novak in their prime. It's a phenomenal achievement, and if I've gone on far longer than I initially intended to in my rave, well ... . Sorry not sorry. It's Decision to Leave. It deserves as many laudatory words as possible.